Friday, 26 June 2009

Bahrija case - Set for a foregone conclusion

Set for a foregone conclusion

Any law-abiding citizen with some sensitivity to the environment was disillusioned, depressed and saddened by the Prime Minister's answers to the questions put to him by The Sunday Times regarding the Baħrija case in the interview carried last week.

It is clear that Lawrence Gonzi is all set to accept an "all legal" answer by the Mepa investigators to give Victor Scerri the go-ahead for the spoliation of this splendid valley in spite of its level one protection status. Why? Because it is legal: "Apparently the permit is validly issued... This is a permit that was issued in 2000, nine years ago... I am trying to get Mepa to respond to the realities of today and for the future. We have an economic situation..."

For Heaven's sake, what does the economic situation have to do with this? How can Dr Gonzi even talk of the realities of today and the future and forget that this valley is going to be lost forever?

What seems to matter to Dr Gonzi is the law, only the law. If Dr Scerri has broken the law, Dr Gonzi will ask for the withdrawal of the permit and will ask the Nationalist Party president to resign. The big talk on the necessity of being sensitive to the environment, that ODZs will be tenaciously protected vanish into insignificance in contrast with the almightiness of the law.

Does it need to be said that legal systems everywhere are rife with loopholes, easy prey to the sly and wily. Facta lex inventa fraus, as the Romans discovered 2,000 years ago. Is the Prime Minister now intimating that this development is to be condoned if it is legal?

Should we admire Robert Musumeci because he is "consistently successful with applications with Mepa, despite there being a refusal by the case officer" and that "defending applications till the very end is precisely what my profession entails?"

Should we hold Mr Musumeci in high esteem because, with his "expertise and knowledge of planning procedures", he almost always persuades the DCC board to overturn the numerous valid objections of the case officers?

Does the Prime Minister expect us instead to denounce the case officers for their lack of knowledge of the law and reject their valid arguments conforming to the structure and local plans?

Should we shame them because in the Baħrija application they found the proposal so "objectionable in principle" that they felt no need to communicate with Mr Musumeci because the issues involved "cannot be addressed through revised drawings"?

If Mr Musumeci, with his expertise, managed to somehow avoid breaking the "body" of the law, the "spirit" of the law was manifestly mocked to such an extent that even the Directorate of Mepa remarked: "This is unacceptable as the safeguards that seek to protect the environment against urban sprawl are being bypassed through a succession of piecemeal applications resulting in a development that is by far in excess of the originally envisaged 'reconstruction of existing structures with very minor alteration to facilitate use'". Is this not tantamount to an accusation of irregularity (if not illegality)?

By what stretch of the imagination can this case be considered legally regular when the outline development permit for it was issued in the year 2000 "to reconstruct the existing structures with very minor alterations to facilitate use" and end up, eight years later, with a fully-fledged development for which no justification was given as required by the Structure Plan policies?

It was no whim that three NGOs called for the Prime Minister's direct intervention in this case and were backed by the more important environmental NGOs. They did it precisely because the case highlights the widely-known deficiencies within the Mepa structure that nobody can address. It is sheer nonsense that the directorate, with its corpus of case officers, experts on the intricacies of the policies of the Structure Plan, can be overruled by the DCC board, mainly composed of part-time government appointees.

That the Police Commissioner or Mepa itself should take up Dr Scerri's challenge to investigate whether he exerted any pressure is a waste of time and money. Everybody knows why. The Prime Minister knows this. But only he can put a stop to a damaging foregone conclusion. Yet, the early signs are that the way is being prepared for another deadly blow.

Still, the NGOs are neither crestfallen nor disheartened. They have a good case and an admirable cause and will pursue it to the end. If needs be, take it to the EU. It is high time the government stops paying lip-service to the NGOs and the interested public and starts listening carefully to the environment's present and future needs. The sensitivity here is still sorely lacking.

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